Postcards from beyond. That is how Eknath Easwaran describes the sacred texts of India. It would also be a fitting description of this collection of writings of Abhishiktananda.
Born in France and trained in the French Benedictine monasticism of the pre-Vatican II era, Henri le Saux (1910-1973), who became Abhishiktananda, traveled to India and immersed himself in Hinduism.
Reading the story of Abhishiktananda’s life that begins this volume reveals a man who was exceptionally passionate and sensitive.
A monk cannot accept mediocrity; only extremes are appropriate for him (45).
He loved everything good, true, and beautiful and was willing to hold the tension that this love required. Instead of solving these tensions superficially and being satisfied with that, Abhishiktananda allowed this tension to drive him deeper into his own soul. It was the inner conflicts and tensions that shaped this man. It was the tension of loving the other, in this case another religious tradition, that drove Abhishiktananda’s spirit.
All of the writings in this collection are, at least in the broad sense, autobiographical. Abhishiktananda was concerned with experience, not theory.
All notions are burned in the fire of experience (198).
These writings are rooted in his own mystical journey, a journey which is often difficult and dangerous.
Several key themes emerge in the writings. The first, already mentioned, is Abhishiktananda’s focus on experience. He is not primarily concerned about conceptual understanding but a meeting of Hinduism and Christianity at the level of being or experience. Of the conceptual tools that Abhishiktananda uses to explore this meeting, the Christian mystery of the Trinity and the Paschal mystery are central. These concepts are brought into dialogue with the Hindu concept of Advaita (non-duality) and Saccidananda (from Sat = Being, Cit = Consciousness, Ananda = Bliss). Christ is brought into conversation with the Hindu concept of Guru where Christ is described as the Sad-Guru (true guru) and the church is described as his body. The tension between East and West is also discussed with India and the East representing the “Within” and Abhishiktananda counseling that the West needs to embrace the gift of interiority that India offers, but that it can only be accepted on its own terms. There is also a beautiful discussion of inculturation in a letter that Abhishiktananda writes to would-be missionaries to India. As you can see, this book covers a lot of ground!
A few notes on the structure of the book… The book is a little over 200 pages and divided into nine chapters: 1) Benedictine Monk, 2) Advaita, 3) East-West, 4) Immersion in Hinduism, 5) The Life of the Hermit, 6) Christianity, 7) God, 8) Prayer, and 9) Awakening. The writings are roughly chronological so one gets the idea of the development of Abhishiktananda’s thought. No selection is more than a few pages long and a few or only a sentence. The average selection is about a page in length. Selections are drawn both from Abhishiktananda’s published works and from his letters. There is a brief glossary of Sanskrit terms at the beginning of the book.
The book is certainly worth reading. The selections provide a lot of material for reflection and perhaps even prayer. It is obvious that Abhishiktananda was a pioneer in inter-religious dialogue. His insights shed new light on familiar Christian teachings and invite deeper exploration. Some Christians may be put off by Abhishiktananda”s approach which relativizes Christian dogma and doctrine. Abhishiktananda himself struggled with that fact. In the end, he attempts to remain faithful to his experience.
One who knows several mental (or religious or spiritual) languages is incapable of absolutizing any formulations whatever — of the gospel, of the Upanishads, of Buddhism, etc. He can only bear witness to an experience — about which he can only stammer (205).
This stammering witness to the truth of his experience has a lot to teach us.